Escape Review | Better Run Through the Jungle

by Andrew Parker

Blending social commentary with chase movie elements and large scale shootouts, the South Korean thriller Escape is an odd film, but certainly an entertaining one. A simplistic movie with something it wants to say about relations between North and South Korea that uses classic action movie tropes and cliches to tell it, Escape maintains a sense of tension and urgency to tell a basic story of life and death struggle against unfathomable odds. It’s not subtle by any stretch, but director Lee Jong-pil keeps things moving quickly and forcefully enough to make Escape into a genre movie highlight of the summer season.

North Korean soldier Sgt. Lim Kyu-nam (Lee Je-hoon) is coming to the end of his mandatory ten years of military service in a battalion located not too far from the frontlines of the DMZ separating the communist nation from its democratic neighbours to the south. Thanks to his lowly status and poor upbringing, Lim will  be facing a bleak life outside the military, likely being forced to perform manual labour in a mine or on a farm. With his parents deceased and nothing left to lose, Lim has been intricately preparing an escape plan that can bring him to the Southern Border. With miles of forests, open fields, swamps, hundreds of soldiers, and deadly mine fields standing in our hero’s way, defection won’t be easy, but it becomes exponentially harder when a fellow unhappy soldier (Hong Xa-bin) demands to come along and Lim becomes praised as an unlikely hero that somehow lucks into a promotion that could keep him in the military even longer. If his plans are discovered, or he’s captured along the way, it spells certain death by execution for Lim.

Escape is a jingoistic film with good intentions and a lot of well worn cliches that action buffs will immediately identify. There are huge speeches about pride for one’s country and the struggle for freedom. Every few scenes the heroes have to endure a near miss that keeps them from getting found out or killed. Villains look at their killers for too long before taking necessary action, allowing the heroes enough time to get away. The protagonists will survive hails of gunfire from legions of soldiers with high powered weaponry, falls from great heights, and any number of explosions or fires because the film would stop dead in its tracks if anyone gets too badly injured. Jong-pil has included all the classic elements to make a raucous, crowd pleasing ninety minute chase movie, and the filmmaker has the technical chops to back all of it up (especially during the film’s gorgeously shot final showdown that utilizes natural light and an unlikely location).

The primary heroes and villains are also interesting characters with unique motivations and backstories. Lim doesn’t want to defect to South Korea because he necessarily thinks it’s better than the North, but rather because he resents a government that wants to dictate the course of his life. Lim is on a mission to live life on his own terms, even if it means dying and failing in the process. Lim has a perfect antagonist in the form of Li Hyun-sang (Koo Kyo-hwan), the calculated, psychopathic, high ranking officer tasked with tracking down the fugitive soldier, Li has secrets of his own, and once revealed offer an interesting counterpoint to the battling ideologies at play. Li and Lim are different people from dissimilar backgrounds, but there’s a heavy implication that Li’s actions are motivated more by jealousy than patriotism.

The messaging of Escape is about as subtle as a flag unveiling ceremony, but it provides a solid bedrock for Jong-pil’s extended chase. The tension level continually rises, the danger is palpable, and the framing of Lim’s journey as a meteorological race against time is a clever twist. It’s a slight movie, but this kind of spectacle cinema doesn’t require rocket science level intelligence. It’s literally about getting from Point A to Point B without getting killed along the way, and there’s always a joy in seeing that kind of stripped down story told in the most entertaining way possible. Escape might not be a smart film in the traditional sense, but it has the strength of its convictions and a wonderful level of craft.

Escape opens in select cities, including at TIFF Lightbox in Toronto, on Friday, July 5, 2024.

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